Through the churn of almost a century, I’ve observed generations before, during, and after my generation. Although it is interesting to give generations characteristic titles in a nutshell (Lost Generation, Roaring Twenties, Silent Generation), there are often too many different titles for the same generation. In addition, weak titles, like the ‘x, y, z and g’ generations, lose their distinctions very quickly.
The Greatest Generation has not lost its distinction, even though that title was sort of coined by a famous journalist, Tom Brokaw, who wrote a book (1998) titled by that memorable phrase. There are other titles for that generation, but that title is instantly recognized as a tribute to WW2 veterans and will remain indelible in the American psyche.
During WW2 our focus was principally on the military dynamics of the war. Political conversations deferred to reverence for the tragic gold stars that hung on neighborhood windows. There was an underlying apprehension about the war.
At that time, I worked as a messenger in New York City’s financial district. One of my daily stops included an office worker whose husband was in the massive Battle of the Bulge. I still remember her anxiety and the remarkable dignity she maintained at her work despite her tension. Though her demeanor was laudable, it was not unique. It was the standard for what is best known as the Greatest Generation.
Generational titles are imprecise because they do not cohesively reflect timelines and events. For example, five years after WW2 ended, the Korean War was not just a lingering effect of WW2. That overlap of generational identity is inevitable with all generational flows, but it was particularly true for thousands of soldiers and their families, Baby Boomers notwithstanding.
As important as the characteristics of each generation may be, the overall direction of a society over many decades is the most accurate measure of American society since England’s Victorian Era (1840s to 1900, Industrial Revolution).
The descriptions and to some extent even the names of specific generations vary according to the people who list them and who describe them according to their overall mindset about the generations about whom they describe.
Despite the seemingly desultory manner in which generations are named, the descriptions of them are similar. Certainly, The Great Depression and The Lost Generation, let alone The Greatest Generation speak for themselves. The Lost Generation title was coined by Gertrude Stein (“You are all a Lost Generation.”) The Roaring Twenties was coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald. They ‘lived’ their generations.
At the moment, I’m still alive. My longevity has long since overridden the narrow strip of time designated as the essence of the first 25-year slice of life ─ less the diaper, teething, walking, and early childhood part of life. I’m not, nor will I ever be famous, but fame is not required to accurately observe the direction of the society in which we are born. What is required is the sensitivity to observe a seemingly small social phenomenon which has been unprecedented for years if not centuries. It is ‘second nature’ to highlight significant events and to a lesser extent associate generations with celebrities (which in time will fade). It is also easy to identify big events like a global financial depression which has come and gone but may again occur. But for me, the key factor that accurately defines a generation is its level of civility. And language is a major component of civility.
I think of a series of generations before mine, not just one at a time. Throughout my life and for a very long time before it, politics has been rife with harsh words, bitter words, and scathing insults. But never vulgar. When President Harry Truman fired General MacArthur, the General simply said, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
That was ‘then.’ This is ‘now.’ Like “The shot that was heard around the world,” a major change in American culture has been epitomized by a single word: Scumbags!”
That marks a stark difference between ‘then and now.’ The Congresswoman Maxine Waters has introduced street language into the highly visible political dialogue of American officials at the White House. How’s that for an assault on “the People’s House!” Dictionaries list dozens of meanings for the word except for its street meaning, of which we are all aware ─ unless the neighborhood in which I grew up is unique.
We’ve run out of x, y, and z titles for snap generational distinctions. In addition to that, the narrow distinctions among generations are rapidly blurring. For example, Ms.Waters and I are of the same generation, but our differences do not reflect our mutual timeline…they never did, even when we were teenagers. Technology and communications have diminished the relevance of an individual’s lifetime, let alone the importance of the brief timeline to which we attach a title.
Before this century the distribution, acquisition, and even the knowledge of the ‘latest’ artifacts are available to virtually everyone at the same time. Age differences are all but irrelevant. Paradoxically, interpersonal bonding is rapidly dwindling to an eerie kind of isolation. I liken the quality of current human life to that of a hamster on a wheel, rapidly racing but going nowhere.
There is an almost hypnotic dependence on machines to simulate human interaction from an exchange of electronic greeting cards to the anonymous ‘in depth’ political exchanges amongst strangers on the Internet, often sprinkled with ‘likes,’ ‘dislikes,’ and ‘subscribe.’ Intellectual life has been reduced to artificial ‘paint by numbers.’
What happened to one-on-one or small group discussions at a friend’s home or under the shade of a supported grapevine tunnel! I had lots of brain-nourishing discussions under the shade of my grandfather’s supported grapevine. Under that shade, I discussed life with a good cousin and my grandfather. Under that shade, we shared firsthand knowledge and experience of the better part of almost two centuries. Under that shade, we had in depth discussions while we plucked and ate world class figs right off grandpa’s three huge fig trees. Figs and philosophy go well together.